Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 Year in Review

So it’s that time of year again. As 2011 comes to a close, it is time to reflect on what the past 365 days were like for us.

Goals and Progress

While it is logical to start here, it’s also a bit embarrassing. My goals for this year were… ambitious. Not in the sense that they were impossible to accomplish, but in the sense that I didn’t really work on them. Oh, sure, I had the best of intentions, but somehow they slipped away from me.

 Maisy showing off her best trick.
I had a list of official goals, and then a list of unofficial ones. Sadly, I did much better on the latter. I guess those were the things I was more interested in.

Officially, I was to work on writing training plans and keeping records. Although I did keep some records (and was quite enthusiastic about it, too), I fell off the wagon early on. Another great in theory/bad in practice goal was trying to achieve stimulus control on three basic behaviors. Complete and utter failure. I did a bit better on my goal to teach Maisy 12 tricks… but only a bit. I taught two. I did the best on my goal to train in shorter sessions. I’d say we still go longer than 3 minutes sometimes (which was my goal), but a session almost never goes more than 5 minutes.

Unofficially, I wanted Maisy to be more comfortable with life (huge check), and go to a trial and/or runthrough (check and check). I wanted to become a cleaner trainer, which is a work in progress, but at least it’s, you know, in progress. I failed at getting more things on verbals, but I was very successful at taking more videos and photos. We definitely went hiking (maybe not enough, but some), and had tons of fun.

Thankfully, I can call the year a success. As I said last year: no matter where we’re at in another year, as long as we’re together, I’ll call it successful. And so we are.

Trials and Accomplishments
We made it! Hooray! After retiring her last year, we had three very good experiences. Back in April, Maisy and I went and hung out at an APDT trial. Then, in November, we entered (and did quite well at) a CDSP runthrough. Finally, just this past Monday, we entered a CDSP obedience trial, where she was awesome.

Medication and Behavior
We’ve probably made the most progress in this area, but then, this is where we’ve spent most of our time, energy, and money.

Great Danes? Scary? Nah...
We continue to visit our veterinary behaviorist at the U of MN, Dr. Duxbury. Seeing her was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, as Maisy has made so much progress with the addition of medication. She continues to take 10mg of paroxetine every day. Over the summer, we experimented with trazodone (a complete and utter disaster), and then switched to clonidine for use in stressful situations. It’s nice to have a short-acting drug for things like boarding and extended times away from home. (Speaking of which, Maisy had her first boarding experience this year, too.)

Maisy has definitely improved in her ability to relax, both at home and in public, and I have been able to relax along with her. I no longer feel the need to scan the environment constantly for potential triggers, and I can walk her without fear of over-the-top reactions. She’s still reactive at times- I don’t think it’ll ever go away entirely- but it’s rare, and she recovers much quicker than ever before. She’s been able to hang out with strange dogs without issue, including former “trigger dogs” (large, black dogs with prick ears), and she's even been a decoy for another reactive dog!

We also graduated from reactive dog class this summer. This wasn’t entirely planned- our instructor moved, and we never really joined another class- but it seems to be okay. I haven’t seen any backsliding, and although we didn’t discuss it directly, at our appointment in December, Dr. Duxbury didn’t seem to think we needed to get back into class.

Skills and Training
I was incredibly inspired by the Denise Fenzi seminar in July, and have since spent time working on Maisy’s obedience behaviors again. Well, “work” might be the wrong word here- one of the things I really took away from the seminar is that work is play. We are finally both having fun with obedience training. Maisy’s heeling is about a billion times better than it was last year, and she has something approaching a real retrieve now. It still needs work, but we’ve come a long, long way, and I finally believe it’s possible.

Me and My Growth
Finally, I feel like I’ve done a lot this year, too. Not only have I continued to learn, I’ve also gotten some hands-on experience with other dogs, too. To top it off, I’ve done some pretty cool dog-related activities.

Knowledge first. Although I didn’t do a very good job at keep track, I’ve continued to read plenty of books on dogs. The ones I know I’ve read includes: SOS Dogs, Inside of a Dog, and So You Want to be a Dog Trainer. (Next year, I'll definitely do a better job of keeping track!)

Sara and I at the Fenzi seminar. Photo by Robin Sallie.
As you all know, I’ve also been to a ton of seminars. I think my favorite of the year was the aforementioned Denise Fenzi seminar, but Clicker Expo comes in as a close second. That was so much fun, and I’m sad not to be going again next year. I also saw Sarah Kalnajs, Kathy Sdao, Ken Ramirez, and Patricia McConnell.

One neat experience that I had- but didn’t write about here- was acting as a trial chair for a UKC obedience and rally trial. I was pressed into service when the previous chair moved away this summer. I was really overwhelmed by everything I needed to do, but I had a lot of support, and the trial went off without a hitch. WOW, though. There is so much work that goes on behind the scenes. If you take your dog to shows or trials, please take a moment to thank the host club and the workers for all they do. Better yet, volunteer to help out if you can. I guarantee that your assistance will be greatly appreciated.

I began volunteering with BEST this year, too. This program was started by my friend Sara as an extension of Paws Abilities Dog Training in Rochester, and provides free training classes to dogs in shelters and rescues in order to make them more adoptable. I’ve worked mostly handling dogs during class, but also did a bit of teaching.

Speaking of teaching, I became an official dog trainer this fall when I began teaching reactive dog classes for Paws Abilities. It’s been challenging, but it’s also been fun to see the growth in my students. Working with a reactive dog is not easy, and I’m excited to help people develop the skills they need to be successful.

And so...
2011 was a pretty awesome year all the way around. On pretty much every front, Maisy and I made at least some progress, and I cannot tell you how incredibly proud I am of my little muppet dog. I am just so happy with her. It will be pretty difficult to top 2011... but I'm sure going to try! I can't wait to see what 2012 brings! 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

CDSP Trial Results

Well, it finally came! After 16 months off from trialing, Maisy and I have returned to the world of competition! What's more, instead of doing rally, like we've done in the past, this was our very first time doing obedience. I chose CDSP for our venue because I knew it would be a small trial, relatively low-pressure, and because I could take treats in the ring in case things went horribly wrong.

They didn't.

In fact, they went very, very good. See for yourself:

The trial was a success in many way. First, as you can see above, her performance was very good. Although there were a few missteps here and there, she did well enough to score a very respectable 192 in the ring! This score, incidentally, was good enough to tie us for first place! As a result, we had to do a run-off:

Huge thanks to my friend Laura for getting video of the run-off. I did not expect to need to go in the ring a second time, so Maisy was in the car when we were called. In the midst of running to get her, I didn't even think about getting video. Laura did, though, and even uploaded it for me!

Anyway, we lost the run-off, but I can't say I'm too upset about that. I mean- look at her! She did really well for having absolutely no warm-up. I stuffed two cookies in her and went. Still- 2nd place at her very first obedience trial? NICE.

On top of that, she also ended up being the high-scoring mixed breed of the day as well as the high-scoring club member (I belong to the club that hosted the trial- the Minnesota Mixed Breed Club.)

The trial was also a success in terms of her attitude. We were connected throughout the majority of the run, and she just seemed happy to be out there with me. She was a bit stressed, too, to the point that I actually scratched her from the second run, but I did that more to prevent issues than because we were having them.

And I think the trial was successful for that reason, too. It is easy to push a dog too hard, especially on the heels of success. But when you're working with a reactive dog, it's important to avoid putting your dog in a situation she cannot handle. We were toeing that line today, and I am proud of myself for being able to recognize and act on that.

Anyway, it was an amazing day. I am so incredibly happy with how Maisy did. What an awesome little dog.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Healing Your Heeling, Part 2

A few months ago, I attended a heeling handling skills class presented by Nancy Little, a popular local trainer. Earlier this week, I posted about her general strategies, as well as information about pace changes and halts for heeling. (If you missed it, you can find it by clicking here.) Today, I'll share what she taught us about all the turns, including the figure 8 exercise.

Get it Right (and Left)
While it might seem that the right and left turns have little in common (they do require very different skills from the dog, after all), Nancy actually had us handle them almost identically. Her biggest advice was that neither turn should be too sharp. She said you don't want to do a “military turn”- a very tight 90 degree turn- because that makes it extremely difficult for the dog to maintain the correct position. At the same time, if your turn is too round, the judge is very likely to deduct points.

Therefore, what you need is a very mild curve. Nancy used the visual of a street corner. I don't know what it's like where you live, but here in Minnesota, most street corners have a defined right angle while still being rounded off. Alternately, check out the way a notebook with rounded corners looks- that is the kind of gently curved path you should follow.

Since Nancy isn't big on exact footwork, she said you can start the turn on either foot, but recommend taking three steps through the turn. On the first one, your foot should be angled at roughly 30 degrees, the second at 45, and the third at 60. For those of you who struggle with math concepts, it will look like this:

Badly drawn Paint diagrams for the win.

Do a 180
About turns can be tricky for the dog since they can look a lot like right turns. As a result, it's not uncommon to see a dog go wide on the about turn. You'd think that the solution would involve very particular footwork, but that's not how Nancy taught it. In fact, she said not to worry too much about your feet; while they do have to do some work, it is more important to think about how the rest of your body moves through space.

As you enter the about turn, above all, you need to stay balanced and keep your feet directly under your shoulders. You should plant a foot facing straight forward (Nancy said it's generally easiest to do the right foot). As soon as that foot plants, look to the right. Your shoulders should follow, and this, more than anything, is what your dog will look at as his cue. Your feet should then rotate in place (envision yourself standing on a paper plate, and try to keep your feet in that area). I found this much easier than trying to remember how to make my feet form a “T” or do other fancy footwork! Don't get me wrong- you can do the “T” if you want- it's just that she doesn't think it's a deal breaker if you don't.

Figure it Out
The figure 8 exercise is possibly the hardest of all the heeling exercises because it has so many components: the dog needs to move fast, slow, turn both right and left, and halt several times. That is a lot of work in a very short amount of time! To handle this exercise well, you need to make sure that your dog has time to transition between each individual skill component.

Start by setting up several strides away from the midline of the figure 8. You want to get several strides of heeling in before you turn so that the dog is up and moving with you. If you starting turning or curving from the sit, he will likely lag or forge (depending on which way you go) from the first step, which will also impact his performance on the rest of the exercise.

You can choose to go to the left or the right first; either direction is acceptable according to the rules. No matter what you choose to do, you need to make sure that your circles are the same size so that your figure 8 is nicely balanced. Everyone's circles will be slightly different based on their dog's size and flexibility, of course, but as a general rule of thumb, you will probably walk approximately 2 to 3 feet away from the stewards. Whatever this distance is, make sure it is the same in both directions. Both circles should be the same size.

At this point, I must point out that using the term “circles” is a bit misleading. While you do want to make your turns nice and rounded, you also want to have straight lines, not curving ones, when you're moving between the two stewards. This is because straight lines give your dog the time he will need to recover and adjust his speed from slightly slower on the left turn to driving forward through the right turn.

There is a sweet spot in which you switch from straight line to turning and from turning to straight line again. To find this spot, mentally draw a line between the two stewards. Then draw a line perpendicularly between the stewards. Your spot will be 2 to 3 feet away from the steward (depending on the size of your circle) on this line.

When you get to one of those sweet spots (indicated by the blue dots in the diagram below), you should walk in a straight line to the next spot. The path you walk will walk something like this:

As you're moving from spot to spot through the figure eight, you need to make sure that your body supports what you're asking your dog to do. The easiest way to do this is by directing your gaze in specific places throughout the exercise.

As you are approaching a circle, you should look at the sweet spot; that keeps your gaze straight ahead, and as a result, your shoulders will be straight, too, which tells the dog to match your pace. Once you've entered the circle, you should look at either the steward's feet or the sweet spot on the other side of the steward (again, indicated by the blue dot on the diagram above). When you're going to the left, this drops your shoulder backwards, which tells your dog to slow down. When you're going to the right, this rotates your shoulder forwards, which lets your dog know he should speed up.

As you are exiting the circle, you should change where you're looking to the next sweet spot by the other steward. Again, this keeps your gaze and your shoulders straight forward, letting your dog know that he should match your pace, and giving him time to recover and prepare for the next change in speed. It will also help you to walk in a straight line. Make sure that as you move from one steward/circle to the next, you cross over the invisible line between the stewards as close to the middle as possible. This will help you keep your circles the same size.

Truthfully, this is all pretty tricky, both to do and to describe! We practiced quite a bit to make sure we were getting nice straight lines and evenly sized circles. While it is important to practice each handling skill before you introduce it to your dog so that you know what you're doing (and look natural doing it), it is especially important to do so with the figure 8.

As I said in part 1, this is not the only way to handle heeling. There are many options, and it is more important that your method feels natural and is understandable to your dog than it is to adhere to any particular style. I do like what I learned from Nancy, and I will be striving to teach these body cues to Maisy. Still... I'd love to hear what you do with these specific exercises. Do you do something similar, or completely different? Share in the comments!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Training Tuesday: Just a Training Session

On Sunday, I rented some open ring time at a local training facility. We mostly worked on heeling, did a little jumping, and a couple signals and drops on recall. Nothing fancy. See for yourself:

Overall, I was pleased with the session. I didn't do any warming up before starting the video because I wanted to get a sense of how much I should work with her prior to going into the ring (our trial is less than a week away now, yikes!). I'm still not sure. I know from previous experience that I shouldn't overdo it, but she clearly starts out a bit distracted. She did much better after a potty break, although I'm not sure if it's just that she needed that much time to warm up, or if she was uncomfortable.

What I really like in this video is the special guest star (starting at about 5:10). Yes, that is my husband playing with Maisy. He has never done any heelwork with her before, and yet look how awesome they are together. She gives him tons of attention and even does a drop on recall for him! So cool!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Healing Your Heeling, Part 1

A few months ago, I signed up for a dog training class without my dog. It sounds weird, I know, but Nancy Little, a popular local trainer, was doing a two week class on handling skills for heeling right when I was struggling to figure out how to cue halts with my body, not my voice. The class was well worth my time. I'm going to share a little about what I learned, but honestly, if you live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, you should contact her. Nancy is incredibly nice and encouraging, and she's a great teacher. No wonder she's so popular!

You'll notice that I described the class as a handling skills class, not as one on footwork. This was deliberate, as Nancy doesn't do footwork. Surprised? I sure was, but her explanation- that dogs aren't looking at your feet- made a lot of sense. Almost every dog is trained to look up as part of the heeling picture. As a result, Nancy taught us to use the way we move our bodies to cue what's next in heeling.

That said, you will see a lot of notes to what your feet are doing. This is partly because it's what makes sense to me. Some of what I'll write here is not exactly what Nancy said, but rather how it got translated in my head. (I guess I think about my feet a lot or something, but the point is that any stupidity in this post is probably my fault, not hers.) But I also write a lot about feet because they are part of your body, and there are times where what they do matter. You just shouldn't obsess over them; Nancy has found that excessive worry over feet tends to make people tense up. This throws off the rest of the body, which defeats the purpose.

Before we dive in, a reminder: handling is not training. You need to focus on your job, and let the dog do his. You can't compensate for the dog in your handling; if he makes a mistake, he needs to fix it, not you. You should always be predictable and clear in your handling so your dog knows what's coming next.

Going along with that, we had a conversation about whether or not you should make (and keep) eye contact with your dog when heeling. Nancy's preference is to avoid doing so. She's found that people who maintain eye contact struggle to walk in straight lines, which is a critical heeling skill. Also, dogs can't see your body as well when they're busy looking in your eyes. As a result, she prefers to look slightly ahead of the dog, keeping him in her peripheral vision, and looking up/where she's going regularly. That said, she knows people like to make eye contact, so if you're going to do it, you need to remember it is an indicator that the dog is in the correct position. If the dog forges or lags, you should break eye contact, and instead look where he should be. This will make an error in heel position very clear to your dog and it will help him know when he's right again.

The Basics of Heeling
For Nancy, almost everything revolves around the shoulders. They are the biggest, most obvious thing that the dog sees when he looks up. She emphasizes keeping your shoulders over your hips; not only will this help you keep your balance, but it will also keep your dog in line with your hips- which is, incidentally, where heel position is. You should never twist your torso forward or back unless you're turning, because this will pull your dog forward or push him back, too.

This applies at all times, including when you're stopped, waiting for the judge's command to heel. Many dogs- Maisy included- will forge on the first step or two, and then fall back into correct position. Nancy explained that this happens when the handler leans forward during the first step and fails to keep her shoulders over her hips. Make an effort to lean back slightly on to your heels, and step out with your feet first. (Of course, if your dog lags on the first step, you might want to lean forward slightly on the first step. Know your dog.)

It is also important to make sure that when you're heeling, you're making smooth, rolling steps. Nancy shared that many people tend to walk flat footed or even with their toe hitting the ground first. This causes something like a shock wave to go up and through the body, creating jerky movements that look to the dog like a cue to STOP.

Nancy advised us to avoid this by walking so that our heels hit the ground first. The step should roll through your feet: heel-ball-toe-heel-ball-toe. This feels a bit awkward at first- at least, it did for me- but it provides for a nice smoothness and helps the dog understand that forward motion is expected.

A Change of Pace
Going faster is usually easy for most dogs, but even so, giving very clear body language will help support your dog. It's also pretty easy: lean forward, so that your shoulders are ahead of your hips, raise your eyes/head so that your focus is higher, and bend your elbows to bring your arms up into a running position. If you heel with one hand resting on your belly, move it to the side in order to do this. When it's time to return to a normal pace, your shoulders should go back over your hips, your eye gaze will go back to its normal location, and your arms will resume their usual place.

The slow pace, on the other hand, is typically more challenging for dogs. Not only do most dogs prefer speed, but they also tend to get confused about whether you're simply slowing down or if you're going to stop. If you've ever seen a dog do that butt thing where he keeps almost sitting during the slow, it's because he isn't sure what's coming next.

Make it clear to your dog that you're going to keep moving forward by remembering your heel-ball-toe foot movements and leaning backwards slightly. Then quickly ease into the slow pace. Wait, what? I know that sounds confusing, but here's the thing: if you suddenly slam into a slow pace, it will look like a halt to your dog, no matter what your feet are doing. At the same time, if you take too long to change pace, you will need to go that much further at the slow, leading to the risk that you'll get "run into the wall" before a turn. Nancy suggested that we move into the slow pace over the course of two to three steps. Doing this allowed us to be prompt about the pace change without confusing the dog.

Stop Right There
If forward movement is communicated to the dog by rolling foot motions, then it only makes sense that the halt is cued by breaking that smoothness. We need to roughen things up a bit, and Nancy had us do that with our feet. Again, it's not so much about what the feet are doing, but rather, about how they are doing it. As a result, it really doesn't matter which foot does what.

The tricky part about the halt is that you don't want to slow down, because the dog will adjust his speed, thinking you've simply changed pace. If that happens, the dog will either sit very slowly, in a forged heeling position, or even fail to sit entirely. At the same time, you don't want to be too abrupt, because again, your dog will sit in a forged position. To combat both these problems, Nancy uses three distinct steps to clearly communicate to the dog what's expected.

The first will be what's called a break step. Nancy often shuffles this foot- you land on the front part of your foot and kind of slide so it causes a slight scuffing noise that acts as an auditory cue. The second step will be a half-stride in which you step flat; the whole foot should hit the ground at the same time, and it will remain planted. Finally, you'll “close” with the first foot by stepping in line and stopping. It takes some practice, but I found that it was pretty easy to do when I thought about my footfalls as: roll-roll-roll (judge calls the halt) break-step-close.

These are some of the basics of heeling. Again, this is not the only way to handle heeling, but it is one that Nancy has found to be quite successful. I really what I learned because it emphasizes a relaxed, natural feel. I also like it because it relies more on counting the number of steps than using the right foot or the left foot at a particular time. (True confession: I am awful at remembering the difference between left and right, especially under stress. I'd be in a lot of trouble if rally signs didn't have arrows or the judge didn't demonstrate the heeling position ahead of time. Oddly, I am amazing with cardinal directions.)

I'll post again soon on how Nancy advised us to handle all the turns, including Figure 8s, but in the meantime, I'd love to hear how others handle some of these same moves. Do you do something similar? Completely different? Do you even think about how your feet (and body) is moving? I'd love to hear what you do!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

You Can't Fix It All... And That's Okay

 Photo courtesy of my friend.

A few weeks ago, one of my friends- a fellow reactive dog owner- emailed me, distraught over an incident she'd had with her dog while hiking. As far as things go, her dog's reaction was pretty reasonable (she lunged at a group of 25 or so high school kids hiking with cross country ski poles), but my friend was still upset. To her, it felt like a huge setback after a period of steady progress, and she thought that her dog's behavior was a reflection of her shortcomings as a trainer.

So what caused her to feel so bad? Personally, I think it's at least partly due to the societal belief that with enough love and training, it is possible to “fix” every dog. The problem with this, of course, is that it simply isn't true.

Look, I'm not saying our dogs are lost causes, because they are all capable of making progress. With some time and effort, all dogs can behave better and feel more comfortable. But each dog is an individual, and as such, the outcome for each dog will be different. The ultimate training goal will not be the same for every dog, and we should not measure our dog's progress against others.

In her email, my friend wanted to know if she should keep trying. She wanted to know if she should keep training to overcome the issues her dog still has. She wanted to know if she had failed her dog in some way because, despite everything, her dog still doesn't enjoy things like hiking and going to pet stores. She wanted to know if she was a bad trainer because her dog still isn't “fixed.”

Of course not.

We need to accept that dogs are not all the same. It is not fair to force them into a one-size-fits-all box. Instead, we need to be realistic about their unique personalities. As I emailed in response, my friend's dog is happy and comfortable with the activities they are doing. My friend is happy and comfortable with the activities they are doing. Maybe these activities don't involve the things society expects of dogs, but that is okay.

What my friend really needed was permission to accept her dog as she is. She needed to feel like it's okay that her dog isn't “fixed.” The truth is, though, that her dog is just fine: what I haven't told you is that my friend's reactive dog has been certified through a well-known national organization as a therapy dog. This is a very impressive accomplishment, and it is a testament to my friend's dedication to her dog and, yes, her skills as a trainer. Maybe her dog can't do everything society expects our dogs to do, but my friend has found something her dog is both good at and loves doing.

So, friends, I'm here to tell you that you can't “fix” everything about your dog. It's an impossible goal, and it will make you crazy trying. Find things you both enjoy doing together, and give yourself permission to let go of what others think your dog should be and do. Because your dog may not be perfect, but he's yours. And you know what? That's okay.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Training Tuesday: Behavior Edition

With the cold weather and short days, I've been making an effort to take Maisy to pet stores to train. This not only gives us much more room for heeling than our small house, but also provides a bonus in the way of distractions. She's doing very well, and I think we've got some of the issues with the fast pace worked out (I hope!), but today's post is much cooler than that.

 A video still from yesterday's training session at PetSmart.

Last week, I took Maisy to PetCo in the late afternoon and was surprised by how busy they were. While we where there, we saw several children in the 5 to 10 age range, quite a few men in hats, some women pushing carts, and most notably, there was a training class with several dogs in it going on. The class was working on loose leash walking in the aisles, and one of the dogs was straddling that fine line between over-exuberance and reactivity. He was straining on his leash and making that awful wheezing noise- a sound Maisy particularly dislikes.

Maisy and I worked through it all. We did fronts and finishes. We practiced heeling with auto-sits. We changed pace, both fast and slow. We worked very, very hard to walk past stray bits of kibble on the floor. We did stays. And we did it all within five feet of people and kids and dogs. I was happy with her performance, and I made some mental notes about things we need to work on, and thought about how I might adjust criteria in the future.

It wasn't until several days later that I realized the sheer awesomeness of Maisy's performance. Her obedience was good, yes, but her behavior was even better. There is absolutely NO WAY that she could have handled that kind of environment a year ago without flipping out. And yet, somehow, there she was, not only ignoring all the craziness around us, but eagerly engaged in work.

Behavior work is so slow and gradual that sometimes it's easy to miss progress as it's happening. It's easy to take improvement for granted since it looks so much like the day before. And sometimes- like today- I step back to see the whole picture and am absolutely awestruck. I am so, so proud of my dog. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

One Year on Meds: Recheck with the Veterinary Behaviorist

So Maisy's been on meds for a bit over a year now. The difference between the way she was then and the way she is now is nothing short of miraculous to me. Of course, it's not a miracle at all, it's simply the fact that the biochemistry in her brain is not correct, and the addition of paroxetine makes it so. Whatever. The point is, medication has made such a huge impact on our lives that I am absolutely awestruck when I think about it- like when we have an appointment with our veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Duxbury.

Our appointment this time around was actually pretty short and sweet. We didn't discuss behavior logs (although I took them, and I'll share them here today), and we only watched one video. We talked about what daily life is like now- uneventful, really, but that's a good thing in this case. We also talked about some of the challenges we still face- children, mostly, as well as our disastrous (if you're a chicken, anyway) Thanksgiving. But really we just admired how well Maisy is doing.

Here's a link to the behavior logs/charts from a year ago. At baseline, before medication, she was averaging 3.58 incidents (defined as overreacting to unnoticeable or mild stimuli when at home) per day. About a third of these happened during the night, and frequently woke me up. It was not uncommon for these incidents to include prolonged scanning of the environment/general vigilance, up to and including leaving the room to investigate. After six weeks on medication, this was down to 1.33 incidents per day.

Although this was a great improvement, we decided to increase Maisy's medication slightly. I took another set of behavior logs (link here), and after eight weeks at the new dose, we were down to 1 incident a day, on average.

Things have improved since then, and honestly, it's not even worth making a chart. I kept logs for seven days. Over the course of six of these days, I saw a grand total of three incidents, which makes for an average of 0.5 incidents per day. It involved stuff like “Maisy was lying in my lap while we were watching Star Trek. She heard a car go by with loud bass. She lifted her head and growled.” No vigilance, low intensity, and just all around typical dog behavior.

That seventh day, though? Was awful. She had four incidents that day, mostly because my husband was wrong about everything and forced me to yell at him. Okay, not really, but for some reason we were just really crabby with each other that day, and I was amazed by the impact it had on Maisy. Including the seventh day, her logs shoot up to an average of 1 incident a day. Marital bliss is good for more than just the people involved, I guess.

I also took logs after we got home from Thanksgiving. Every year, we spend five days at my parents' house in South Dakota. It's a significant disruption to her routine, there are tons of cats and dogs and horses and chickens, and it's just hard on her. I also took logs last year after we got home, which means I can compare how she recovered both times:

Her stress recovery period actually took longer than I expected, although it's still an improvement over last year.

The coolest thing about all this doesn't come from the numbers, but rather from her general behavior. The video below was taken back in October. I had left work early to do some much needed yard work. It was a very windy day (that white thing you'll see bouncing around is a styrofoam cooler lid), and across the street you can just barely make out approximately 50 elementary school-aged children playing during recess. And through it all, she did this:

Maisy's behavior was not in any way cued or encouraged by me. She chose to lie down. As Dr. Duxbury noted, Maisy's acting like a normal dog. Who knew she had it in her?

Miraculous or not, both Dr. Duxbury and I are quite pleased with Maisy's progress. In fact, the sum total of Dr. Duxbury's advice to me was to continue to be alert to both the environment and Maisy's body language, and to remove her from situations where she might be triggered, but before she reacts. I think I can do that.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Training Tuesday: Lazy, Lazy, Lazy

You guys, I have been so lazy the last few weeks. I always intend to train when we're at my parents' house for Thanksgiving, but I never do. Plus, Maisy found the disruption so stressful that I kept her home for a week so she could recover. Also, it's cold out. Also, well, I'm lazy sometimes.

Thankfully, I'm part of an informal training group that meets on Sundays, and that got us out of our slump this weekend. Here's a little slice of what we did:

For two weeks off, I think she looks pretty good in this video. I, as always, struggle with my handling skills (I seriously need to get better about treating using my left hand instead of bending over and using my right). Still, we did some 15 foot retrieves, a bit of heeling (including working on that pesky fast pace, moving laterally, and backwards heeling), and a bit of fronts and finishes.

Our trial is less than three weeks away now, so I need to be sure to get out training regularly! Please send motivational vibes our way!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: Science-Based Training?

 Training with dad. Note the clicker in his hand.

A lot of people call clicker training (or positive-reinforcement training in general) “science-based.” But is it, really? What do we know, scientifically, about training dogs? In this, my last post on Patricia's seminar, I'll discuss some of the studies she shared with us.

I'm always astounded by the number of people who don't train their dogs. These are the people that, when they learn I do rally and obedience with Maisy, or that I teach training classes, always laugh and say, “My dog could use some obedience!” I'm usually then regaled with increasingly horrifying stories of near-death incidents resulting from a lack of training. But then Patricia shared two studies that made me wonder if most people even want a trained dog.

The first study looked at 118 dogs. Roughly half had no training, or only one basic-training class. The other half were highly trained agility, schutzhund, or search and rescue dogs. Each dog was tested on his ability to manipulate a box in order to get food out. Twice as many of the dogs in the trained group were able to get the food, suggesting that higher levels of training is associated with better problem solving skills.

The other study tested dogs' ability to discriminate quantities. The dogs were allowed to choose between small and large piles of food; in general, both groups chose the bigger amounts. However, the difference between highly trained dogs and untrained dogs became apparent in the second stage of the experiment, when the dogs watched their owners choose the smaller piles before being allowed to choose for themselves. The untrained dogs typically followed their person's lead, and also chose the smaller amount- this despite the fact that they earlier chose the bigger piles. The trained dogs, however, chose the larger piles, suggesting that training creates independent thinkers.

Independence? Better able to solve problems? Dare I say it: improved ability to think? I really don't think the average pet owner wants to live with a smart dog. Perhaps it's a good thing that pet dogs don't receive high levels of training!

Once we've made the decision to train our dogs, though, the next question becomes: how often should we train them? When Maisy and I were actively attending training classes, we were advised to train in short sessions, several times a day. At the very least, we should try to get in 5 or 6 sessions a week. As it turns out, though, this may not be the most efficient use of time.

Two separate studies found that training once a week results in “better learning performance.” They discovered that dogs acquired the skill in fewer sessions when trained less frequently than when trained daily. (One of the studies also looked at how well the dogs remembered what they'd been taught, and found that the dogs in both groups retained the task equally well.)

I think Patricia put it best: maybe the dogs learned in fewer sessions, but come on: it took eight weeks to teach a simple targetting exercise. Maybe it takes a couple of extra sessions, but by doing several sessions a day, the same task could be learned in just a few days. Still, she said these studies point out the importance of processing time; dogs need rest periods in order to learn most efficiently, especially for more complicated tasks.

Finally, every trainer has to make decisions about how they will train. Patricia shared that there are a number of studies showing that force-based training has negative effects. For example, one study showed that dogs trained with shock collars exhibited more signs of stress, even when compared to dogs trained with “fairly harsh” methods. Another found that punishment was associated with increased behavior problems, like aggression, distractability, and overall lower obedience levels. And the study I found most interesting discovered that punishment was associated with increased anxiety in fear in small dogs, but not in large ones.

There are also studies showing that reward-based training has good effects. These dogs are more likely to interact with strangers, be more playful, and are generally better at novel training tasks than dogs who are trained with punitive methods.

Patricia felt it was only fair to share a study whose results we may not like: it found that search and rescue dogs were more successful in advanced stages of training when there was “an increased use of compulsive methods.” Generally speaking, though, it seems that science favors reward-based training, which leads us to the clicker conundrum: should we use them?

One researcher trained 20 dogs to target a ball with their noses. Half the dogs were trained with a clicker, and half were trained with the verbal marker “good.” The results showed that the clicker trained dogs learned the task faster than those trained with the verbal marker (about 36 minutes as compared to 59 minutes). Patricia believes this is because the clicker makes a short, abrupt sound with a very clear start and stop. It's also a “broad noise band”- it covers more frequencies than the spoken word. All of these things make it more distinct and easier for the dogs to notice.

The last study that Patricia shared with us looked at the use of clickers and food versus food only in training. Thirty-five basenjis were taught to target a traffic cone, and once they learned the task, were variably reinforced for a maintenance period. The researchers found no difference in the amount of time that it took the dogs to learn the task; despite proponents' claims, the clicker was not found to speed up learning.

Then the researchers did extinction trials in which they quit giving food to both groups of dogs, but continued clicking the dogs in the clicker group. The results showed that the clicker-trained dogs were more resistant to extinction, to which I just have to say: DUH. The clicker is a reinforcer- it's a secondary reinforcer, not a primary one, it's true, but it's still a reinforcer. Of course the behavior didn't extinguish as quickly. They were still being reinforced. (To be fair, the study authors state that this suggests the clicker does, indeed, act as a secondary/conditioned reinforcer, and I guess it's nice to have that scientifically verified.)

So, with all of this in mind, will it train the way we train? Personally, the answer is no. I train because I enjoy it. Yes, I have a smarter dog as a result, and yes, that can make her more difficult to live with sometimes (I often wonder who is training who). But I train for the experience moreso than the end result... which is probably why I play endless shaping games but have pretty much nothing on cue. (Sigh.) And my methods? Well, those are unlikely to change, too. My choices have been made on my personal moral and philosophical beliefs, not science.

What about you? Will you change anything about your training based on these studies?

If You Want to Know More
This post has been edited for clarity (see comments). It originally said: "Independence? Better able to solve problems? Dare I say it: improved ability to think? I really don't think the average pet owner wants to live with a smart dog. Maybe instead of training the dogs, we should focus on teaching the people how to manage situations better." I think the new version is a better reflection of the study.

    Thursday, December 1, 2011

    Patricia McConnell Seminar: Communication

    It's another quiet night at home. I am curled up on the couch, absorbed in a book, when Maisy walks over to me and gazes intently at me. I'm not sure how something as silent as a stare can be so piercing, but it sure does wonders to get my attention. I smile and ask, “What do you need, pumpkin?”

    She dashes away into the other room, then comes back to the doorway and stares at me again. She wants something, I can tell, so I set my book day and say, “Show me!” She leads me to the den, where she nudges at her Kong, then looks at me pointedly.

    And people say dogs can't communicate.

    Patricia took some time at the seminar to dispel this myth. Of course we attendees know that dogs communicate, and I'm sure we all have stories like the one above. But it's still nice to see science delving into the topic, so today I'm going to share just a few of the recent studies on canine communication.

    What's all that noise?
    Whether they're feeling threatened, protecting some food, or just having fun, dogs can make a lot of noise. Experienced dog owners know that a growl can mean many different things, but are they merely depending on context? Scientists set out to find out, and recorded dogs growling in each of those three contexts and then analyzed the sounds acoustically. They found that play growls are shorter and higher pitched, but that there is little difference between a growl directed at a threatening stranger or while resource guarding.

    Despite this, the dogs could still tell the difference. The researchers placed a dog alone in a room with a tempting bone, and when the dog approached, would play a recording of the different growl types. Unsurprisingly, the resource guarding growl was more effective at stopping the dog than the other growls.

    Other studies have found that dogs can tell the size of a dog by its growl. Using recorded growls and images projected on a screen, the scientists tracked where the dogs looked. The vast majority of dogs would look at the correct sized image.

    Wag the Dog
    We all know that a dog's tail can wag for a wide variety of reasons. Patricia likened it to a human smile- it's usually a happy thing, but sometimes it's forced or faked. Scientists wanted to learn more about tail wagging, so they created a special box with a camera mount, placed the dog inside, and then presented him with several different stimuli type to see what his tail did.

    When the dogs saw their owners, their tails were more likely to wag further to the right. They also wagged to the right when the saw unfamiliar people, but there was less amplitude. When the dog saw another dog who was unfamiliar to him, the tail tended to wag to the left. The same was true when the dog wagged while alone. The most interesting response to me was the dog's wag when he saw a cat: most dogs would wag to the right (the same as for people), but with the least amount of amplitude of any wag.

    Patricia shared that the conclusion is that the right-sided wag probably indicates that the dog is interested in approaching and investigating, while the left-sided wag probably indicates the dog's desire to withdraw or avoid the situation. It makes me wonder how a fearful or reactive dog's tail might wag when faced with unfamiliar people.

    And your point is?
    One of the very interesting things about dogs is that they seem to intuitively understand pointing gestures by humans. Research for years has been mixed on whether or not dogs understand pointing better than other animals, such as their canine cousin, the wolf.

    Monique Udell has done some pretty interesting research on this. She found that wolves can following pointing gestures, and in fact, that they do just as well as dogs... if the conditions are right. Wolves can do it if the experiment is done outside. Pet dogs do best if they're tested inside. Interestingly, shelter dogs tend to fail miserably when the experiment is conducted indoors, scoring worse than even the wolves. Patricia believes this is because of stress, both in general and that of the testing environment.

    Udell also studied a variety of point types. Directly touching something- and maintaining that position- was the easiest gesture for dogs to understand. They also did well with a sustained point. While they could understand other types of points, including momentary taps and points, as well as those held both to the side and when across the midline, they didn't do as well with those gestures. Keep that in mind next time you're trying to show your dog something.

    The Dog Watchers
    This last study was the most interesting to me. Researcher Michelle Wan collected 30 videos of dogs and had them rated and categorized by eight experts. She then played them for over 2100 participants. These people ranged from those who had never owned a dog to professionals who'd worked with dogs for more than ten years. Each participant was asked to categorize if the dog was feeling happy, sad, fearful, angry, or neutral, and then to rate the level of safety, boldness, fearfulness, stress, etc.

    The results showed that people with more dog experience were more likely to label dogs as “aroused” in some way. They were also more likely to observe “negative” emotions like fear, sadness, or stress. This rings true to me. The more I learn, the more I see miserable dogs. Once you learn that a yawn can mean more than tiredness and that a lip lick is more likely to be about stress than hunger... well, it's hard to ignore those signs.

    Anyway, that's just a small sampling of what science knows about dog communication. I'd love to hear your stories about how your dog “talks” to you. Does he growl? Point? Understand your gestures? Share in the comments!

    If You Want to Know More
    A Dog's Growl Announces Its Size
    ‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls, by Farago, et al
    Asymmetric tail-wagging responses by dogs to different emotive stimuli, by Quaranta et al
    Study on Human Perception of Emotions in Dogs, by Michelle Wan
    Patricia's blog post on Monique Udell's Pointing Research

    Tuesday, November 29, 2011

    Beep, beep!

    A few weeks ago, I got stuck behind a large truck on the highway, a rather unremarkable phenomenon, really, except the fact that I remember exactly what that truck looked like: it was a mid-sized delivery truck, smaller than a semi, but definitely not a passenger vehicle. The truck itself was white, and it was noticeably plain; there was no shipping company name emblazoned on the sides. And, as a large truck, it took a bit longer to get up to speed once the traffic light turned green. I maintained a generous but not unreasonable following distance- two seconds, probably- when it happened.

    I got honked at.

    At first, I wasn’t sure the beep was intended for me, but when the car behind me- the type and color lost to memory- drove past, the driver’s hand gesture confirmed that I was definitely the recipient. Even now, I have no idea exactly what I did wrong. After all, I couldn’t possibly go any faster without risking an accident.

    I know it wasn’t a big deal, but it bothered me because I had no idea what I had done wrong. I was still thinking about this incident several days later when I attended an obedience trial. As I watched the handlers working with their dogs outside of the ring, I saw plenty of collar corrections. Sometimes the reason was obvious- a dog who left the handler’s side to go sniff another dog, for example- but often, I had difficulty figuring out what, exactly, the dog had done to merit a correction.

    My feelings about the use of punishment in dog training aside, I just can’t see the point in a correction that isn’t connected to something. What does that teach the dog?

    I know from my experience being honked (and gestured) at that the answer is, “not much.” Since I didn’t know what mistake I’d made, I couldn’t change my ways even if I wanted to. I was annoyed that I’d been singled out for no discernable reason, and I had a sneaking suspicion that the driver was crazy. More than that, my memory about the event has very little to do with my offense- whatever it was- and everything to do with the truck in front of me and the location. Even now, driving through that area reminds me of my confusion. Talk about misplaced emotions!

    And if I- with my presumably larger brain and more sophisticated cognitive skills- had all that baggage, how in the world does a dog process a similar experience? How does he ever figure out what the desired behavior is? How can avoid a correction if he doesn’t know why he received it? What does he think about his handler, who for all appearances, is acting completely crazy? What weird connections does he make between the annoying and/or painful stimulus and the environment?

    I will never deny that punishment in training works. It would be foolish to do so considering that the dogs I saw at the trial were working at high levels. But given my experience on the highway, I do wonder how the dogs figure it out. It must be profoundly frustrating at times, and I have to wonder how they remain sane through it all. Because if I'm honest? I’m pretty sure that if I got honked at every time I drove somewhere, I’d end up taking the bus instead.

    Sunday, November 27, 2011

    Patricia McConnell Seminar: Canine Cognition

    Historically, there has been a lot of animal research, but not much on dogs. I've always found this puzzling, but I guess working with non-human primates or rare birds is a bit more exotic. Thankfully, research on man's best friend has exploded in recent years, so today I'm going to share what Patricia had to say on the subject of canine cognition.

    As always, we must start at the beginning. Can dogs think? For those of us who live with them, the question seems silly. Of course they can. But science requires that we prove our assertions. So what is “thinking”? Patricia shared that the scientific community generally defines it as: the ability to formulate an abstract mental representation of an event or object external to the self and the ability to manipulate that representation to solve a problem.

    That's a pretty big definition, so let's break it down. First: can dogs understand abstract concepts? It seems that they can. Ken Ramirez has done quite a bit of what he calls “concept training”- teaching dogs (and other animals) things like left vs. right, high vs. low, and big vs. small. He's even taught them how to copy the actions of other animals!

    Imitation is actually a pretty complex cognitive process. In order to perform a novel behavior after observing someone else do it, the observer needs to have self-awareness, some measure of empathy (as in, his left front leg is like my left frong leg), and an ability to translate seeing into doing. Ramirez isn't the only person to have taught mimicry- Adam Miklosi from the Family Dog Project in Budapest has done it, too.

    No discussion of smart dogs would be complete without talking about Rico the border collie who has demonstrated the ability to “fast map.” This is a mental process in which children (and apparently Rico) learn the meaning of a new word after hearing it only once. Rico learned the names of over 200 different objects, and could retrieve them for a different room when requested. That's pretty impressive on its own, but when Rico was told to find the name of something new, something he'd never heard of before, he could correctly choose the novel object through the process of elimination.

    In a similar vein, European researchers have taught dogs the concept of “match to sample.” Using touch screens, they have the dog match two identical images. Dogs are quite adept at this, and so researchers began assigning “value” to the images. Some images resulted in treats, and some didn't. Dogs learned to choose the “positive” images and avoid the “negative” ones. When two images were placed next to each other, the dogs would not only choose the positive ones, but would also infer that the other image- even if they'd never seen it before- must be negative. After that, they would avoid the negative item, even when it was paired with another novel image. Pretty neat.

    These are pretty complicated ideas, so I'm really glad that somone uploaded this video demonstrating them:

    So, it seems pretty clear that dogs can think abstractly. But can they solve problems? Again, we dog people would agree this is a no brainer. Thankfully, science supports us: dogs can solve problems. What's interesting, though, is the way they do it.

    Dogs, dingoes, and wolves have all been tested on what's called the “detour test.” The subject is on one side of a see-through fence, and there's food on the other. The task is to go around the ends of the fence in order to get to the food. It sounds simple, and the dingoes would agree: 100% of them could complete this task within 60 seconds. Dogs, though? Depending on the study, only 60-80% could do it.

    Why is this? Well, scientists have found that wild canids seem to be more adept at solving non-social problems than dogs. Man's best friend truly believes in his role, and is more likely to look to his owner than to try to solve the problem himself. Which, let's be fair, is a way of the solving the problem. After all, why not get the being with opposable thumbs to do the hard work?

    Another study set out to see if dogs could recognize if their owners needed help and alert a nearby person. They set up two situations, in which the owners either fell to the ground, faking a heart attack, or where the dog entered the room to find their owner trapped under a bookcase. Lassie they were not: not a single dog sought help from a bystander. The authors concluded that the dogs could not recognize an emergency, but Patrica criticized this, sharing that she thought it possible that the dogs knew their humans weren't actually in danger. I tend to agree with her- after all, dogs have an excellent sense of smell, and their people probably didn't have any of the chemical indicators of distress. Add to that all of the hundreds of anecdotal stories of dogs saving their owner's lives... well, I think further research is needed.

    The good news is that there will be further research. Canine cognition labs have sprung up all over the world, and there is a lot of really interesting stuff being studied. Check out the links below not only for references to the specific studies Patricia discussed, but also to the labs' sites in general- there is tons to explore there, and the science geeks out there will be in heaven. (There are also some links to non-canine animal cognition studies that Patricia shared with us, but that just don't fit in with this post.)

    In the meantime, I'd love to hear stories about your dog's ability to think. Has he ever copied you or another dog's actions? Does he have a unique method of solving a problem? What amazing feats has he accomplished? Tell us! Anecdotes may not be science, but they sure are interesting... and maybe someone will read your story and decide to study it.

    If You Want to Know More:

    Canine Cognition Labs:

    Thursday, November 24, 2011


    “Who's your favorite dog trainer?”

    The question came out of nowhere. My husband Brian and I were lazing around in bed, discussing what we might do that weekend, when he asked.

    “Um... That's a hard one. Denise Fenzi, maybe?”

    “Not me?”

    I laughed, explaining that I thought he was asking about famous trainers. But everything about the question- from the fact that he even asked it to the wounded look on his face when I didn't name him- reminded me that this Thanksgiving, I am profoundly thankful for my husband. There are many, many reasons for this, but since this is a dog blog, I will try to narrow them down to the canine-related.

    Perhaps the thing I am most grateful for is that he shares my dog training philosophy. Like me, he avoids the use of pain and fear when interacting with dogs. He doesn't feel the need to intimidate or dominate our dog. He isn't afraid to use some praise and a handful of treats. He supports both the things I set out to do with Maisy and the way I do them.

    Brian's also very giving. He drives me to out-of-state trials, spends hours at runthroughs with me, recently volunteered to steward at the obedience trial I chaired, and handles dogs at the shelter dog class I've been working with. He's good at it too- the man has a natural talent that makes me envious, and he's great with shy and fearful dogs.

    He's incredibly smart and well-educated- Dr. Duxbury, my dog's veterinary behaviorist, once said so after hearing him make a very insightful comment on a video of Maisy we were watching. He has read many of the classic positive reinforcement books, from Pryor to McConnell, and he's gone to his own fair share of dog seminars. Heck, he even went to Clicker Expo with me! We have some fascinating discussions around our house about things like stress, tertiary reinforcers, and the role of medication in behavior modification.

    The seminar thing is pretty awesome in its own right, but it also means that he doesn't complain about how much I spend on dog stuff, including on Maisy herself. She's a pretty expensive little dog, and things like veterinary behaviorists, chiropractors, and pre-made raw diets add up. Thankfully, he doesn't mind a bit, and will even let me know when he thinks she's due for another massage.

    Which brings me to perhaps his best attribute: he loves my dog. It's true- he's head over heels for her, which is a good thing because Maisy and I? We're a package deal. As it turns out, though, I think the same might be true with him.

    I have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, but Brian is at the top of my list. I love you, honey.

    (P.S.- In case you're wondering, his favorite dog trainer is Sara Reusche. I pretended to be upset that he didn't choose me, but he just smiled impishly. I'd get mad at him, but he's so cute when he's being a brat.)

    Tuesday, November 22, 2011

    Training Tuesday: Busy Sunday

    Sunday was a big day for the little dog.

    In the morning, we went to the first meeting of our newly-formed training group. Organized by my friend Ninso, it's an informal gathering on Sunday mornings. Half a dozen or so of us each kick in a few bucks to rent a facility for an hour, and then we each do our own thing. Maisy and I worked on heeling (looked great), some dumbbell retrieves (more enthusiasm and speed), and jumps. I tried Maisy over a broad jump for the first time ever, and she didn't even hesitate (though she did cut the corner). I was pretty happy about that.

    Of all the dogs there, Maisy had only met one of them before, but that didn't matter- she was wonderful. She did try to chase one of the dogs, but came back quickly when I called. I was a little bummed she even ran after the dog, but given how quickly she bounced back, I was pretty happy with her. And I was thrilled with how social she was with a bunch of new people. She was a world-class floozy, pulling out her best tricks in order to charm hotdogs out of people.

    After the class, I was talking with Ninso about ring nerves and trial stress, and Maisy just chilled at my feet. We were standing in a hallway, and strange dogs kept passing at both ends (talk about sudden environmental changes!), but she barely even noticed. She wasn't even working me for treats, she was just sitting there. I was very proud of her.

    After all that, I probably should have just taken her home and called it a day, but there were CDSP runthroughs scheduled that afternoon, and since I signed us up for a trial in just over a month, I figured we'd better go so I would understand the exercises. After all, it's one thing to read the rule books, but it's another entirely to really know what I would be asked to do.

    Maisy settled in nicely, chewing on a trachea in her crate. But when she came out, she seemed just a bit tenser than usual and definitely a little edgy. She did end up lunging at another dog, which was disappointing. I was hoping she wouldn't demonstrate any reactivity, but she was pretty quiet and returned to me immediately, so I suppose I should count it as an improvement. Sometimes it's just so hard to sort out which expectations are unreasonable, and which are reasonable, though.

    She was a bit slow to warm up, which was probably partly due to stress, and partly due to the new environment. Also, I didn't have her ball, and I didn't have as much room to move around in with her, so it was a pretty different picture. At some point, I should probably think about a warm up routine for her...

    Anyway, we got in the ring, and... well, it's hard for me to know what to say. Here's the video:

    As I said over on Facebook, I left feeling kind of disappointed. She lagged on the fast pace, which completely surprised me since she has been forging in practice. As a result, I was sort of at a loss on how to respond. I'm not sure if you can hear us talking on the video, but that's what I was trying to tell the judge. I was not surprised that Maisy didn't do as well in a new environment as she does at home- that's a normal training thing, after all. It was just that it wasn't the behavior I was expecting! Talk about throwing me for a loop!

    The judge's advice, while greatly appreciated, only threw me off more- I felt like I was trying to juggle way too much at once. In retrospect, I think that's the part that I was most disappointed in. Not the suggestions- those were great, and definitely things I needed to hear- but rather the way they broke my concentration. In the video, you can see a lot of time in the ring where Maisy doesn't have any of my attention... and she should have had all of it! As a result, we weren't as connected as I would have liked, and that coupled with her stress issues left me feeling a bit sad.

    Despite how I felt, there is actually a lot to be happy with in the video. For the on-lead heeling portion, Maisy nailed her halts, did a lovely left turn, stuck with me on the about turns, and overall paid a lot of attention to me. She doesn't give me constant eye contact, but then, that's never been a criterion. Even while the judge and I are talking afterwards, Maisy remains attentive and engaged with me- love it!

    The off-lead figure 8 is nice, too, especially considering that Maisy and I have worked on figure 8s, oh, maybe twice. And never with people. Despite the fact that I let her flooze all over people that morning, and despite the fact that one of the posts is a friend of hers, she stays right with me through the exercise. Good dog! Again, lots of attention, and she nailed her halts.

    Another exercise we've barely practiced is the moving stand for exam, but she did a great job with it, too. I absolutely love the way her tail went nuts as the judge approached. She was just a bit uncertain when the judge reached down to touch her, but none of her little feet moved at any point during the exercise, which is fabulous.

    Finally, the recall over bar jump exercise. I was a bit nervous that she might anticipate my call (she's been doing that in practice), but she held her stay! She did tick the jump on her way over (10” is a lot for her), but whatever. The front was nice, and I was very excited about her finish. It wasn't perfect, but it was a heck of a lot straighter than what we had just a few weeks ago.

    Although my handling wasn't always the best (um, turning back towards her while she was lagging, anyone?), I am very proud of myself for being upbeat, happy, and enthusiastic in the ring. I squealed with the best of them out there, just like I do in practice, and I'm sure she knew I was proud of her. In the end, that's all that really matters, right?

    After the runthrough, we came home and Maisy just absolutely crashed. The poor thing was so tired she couldn't even finish her bully stick. I guess being awesome is hard work!

    All in all, it was a great day. It wasn't the easiest of days, and there are definitely things for us both to work on, but if she does this well in December, I will be very, very pleased. I think we've both grown a lot since that last time we were in the ring, so whether we qualify or not, I'm positive we'll be successful!

    Sunday, November 20, 2011

    Patricia McConnell Seminar: Emotions in Dogs

    Do dogs have emotions? While I'm confident that my regular readers will agree that, yes, dogs most certainly do, I know there are people out there that claim this is baseless anthropomorphism. I always have to shake my head a bit when I run across someone like that- have these people even met a dog?

    Still, their skepticism is warranted. After all, B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, concentrated on external behavior because it is impossible to know the internal state of animals. Well... it was. Science today is closing that gap through the use of medical imaging technology and very clever research. At the seminar, Patricia spent some time to share a bit about emotions in dogs.

    First though, a definition is in order. Patricia favors Damasio's definition: Emotions are the internal changes in the body (hormones, adrenal gland activation, etc.) that cause changes in expression (external behavior), and the thoughts and feelings that accompany them (an internal, subjective thing to be sure).

    We know through imaging studies that dogs have many of the same brain structures, hormones, and neurotransmitters that humans do. What's more, we've learned that emotions are centered in the limbic system, also known as the mammalian brain (so named because all mammals share that particular structure). So internally, dogs meet the criteria for having emotions.

    We also know that emotions serve to drive a lot of behavior: fear, frustration, and anger are the causes of many, many actions among humans and animals alike. In fact, emotions are needed for even the simplest of decision making; Patricia told us that things like deciding where to file a piece of paper is impossible without emotions. Our dogs don't file (unfortunately), but they do make plenty of decisions every day, and their behavior is definitely suggestive of different emotions. Therefore, we can only conclude that dogs meet the second criteria.

    As for the third... well, while we'll probably never know exactly what a dog is thinking, we're getting closer to understanding what's going on in there, thanks to some very clever researchers. Here are the emotions science is pretty sure that dogs feel:

    Disgust, Fear, and Anger
    These are all very basic emotions. Disgust is considered the most primitive emotion of all since it is realated to whether or not something will kill you, especially in the sense of “ew, this is too gross to eat.” Anger is also pretty basic- Patricia shared that anger is mediated by the amygdala, and if you have one (and dogs do), you can get angry.

    As for fear, well, we talk about fear in dogs all the time. Again, it's a primitive emotion necessary for life; if you don't fear danger you will die an untimely death. Our brains are very quick to make fear associations- an evolutionarily advantageous trait to be sure. A wild dog will live much longer if he learns to fear cars, for example.

    Like with anger, the amygdala plays a key role, as well as the hippocampus. In fact, these systems can become overactive, causing the amygdalar pathway to bypass the cortex entirely, meaning that the animal will literally react without thinking. Since this is what happens with people who have Post Traumatic Stress Disodrder, this has caused Patricia to wonder if dogs can suffer from some sort of PTSD, too. The sypmtoms include anxiety, increased emotional arousal, irritability, being easily started, avoidance, trouble concentrating... sound familiar?

    Treatment for fear in dogs, PTSD or not, typically involves avoiding triggers and counter-conditioning, a plan which Patricia feels might be lacking. While it does help address what is going on, it doesn't do much to change the internal state. She suggested looking to diet, massage, anxiety wraps, aroma therapy, homeopathy or chinese medicine, and anti-anxiety meds for a well-rounded treatment plan.

    Many pet owners believe their dogs experience this emotion, citing the way they “just look guilty” after doing something they shouldn't have. But are the dogs actually experiencing guilt?

    Alexandra Horowitz set out to find out. She had dogs and their owners participate in an experiment in which the dogs were left alone in a room with some food with a researcher to watch over them. Sometimes the dogs ate the food, and sometimes they didn't But sometimes the researchers engaged in a bit of subterfuge- they would tell the owners that the dog ate the food when he didn't, or that he didn't eat it when he actually did. When the owners returned, they were instructed to either scold their dogs or greet them normally depending on whether the food was there or not.

    The researchers found that the so-called guilty look was actually a combination of nine different behaviors: avoiding eye contact, lying down and rolling to side/back, a drooping tail, low, quick wagging, lowered ears or head, moving away, raising a paw, and lip licking. What's more, whether or not the dog ate the food had no significant effect on these behaviors. What mattered was the owner's response. Scolding resulted in behaviors associated with the guilty look, and the most were seen if the dog was obedient and didn't eat the food, but was scolded anyway.

    A similar study confirmed these findings. This time, Hecht and Gasci studied the behaviors associated with the “guilty look”, and found that there was no difference between dogs who ate the food, and those who didn't. And while it appeared that owners could tell if their dog ate the food or not, upon further study, it was determined that the owners weren't relying on behavioral cues, but rather on past experiences and expectations.

    Dog owners believe their dogs can feel jealous- one study even asked them about it. 81% of dog owners agreed that their dogs did, and all of the examples given included a social triad with another person or dog involved. The behaviors described were what are generally considered to be attention seeking behaviors (nosing, pawing,etc.).

    But does this pan out in the lab? It seems that it does. A recent study showed that dogs understand the concept of “reward inequity,” or to put it in plain English- they can experience jealousy. Here's the deal: the researchers worked with dogs in pairs. Each dog was asked to “give paw,” but only one was reinforced. The dogs were also worked with alone, where they were asked to perform the behavior without any reinforcement. The results showed that the dogs stopped responding sooner and required more prompts when they saw the other dog getting a reward than when they were alone. In both cases, the dog got no reinforcer, but simply being treated unfairly caused the dog's behavior to deteriorate quicker.

    Patricia also teased us by telling us about some of the ongoing work into the concept of “fairness” with dogs. There is some really interesting science going on, and I can't wait to see some of the resulting studies.

    So it would seem that dogs have emotions. I know that I certainly think so. Of course, I believed that even without knowing about the science, but it is interesting to see it studied in a controlled, systematic way, and I love that it gives us something to point to when we run across one of those people who don't think animals have emotions.

    What about you guys? What emotions do you think dogs have? Do you have any great stories that illustrate one of the emotions above (or perhaps a different one)? I'd love to hear about your experiences!

    If You Want to Know More

    Thursday, November 17, 2011

    Patricia McConnell Seminar: The D Word

    Do dogs have dominance hierarchies? Do wolves? And does it matter?

    Many people argue that canine behavior can be explained by dominance- or its flipside, submission. Books have been written, television shows have been produced, and there are arguments all over the internet about “the D word.”

    One of the biggest problems with the concept of dominance is that the term has been so overused (and, Patricia argues, misused) that it doesn’t mean much at all anymore. I have coworkers who talk about how dominant (or submissive) their dog is, and I’m often left wondering just what exactly they mean by that. And Maisy? Well, I’m just thankful they’ve never asked me to categorize her.

    Scientists describe dominance as “priority access to a preferred, limited resource.” In other words- if there are two dogs and one beefy bone, who gets it? Which dog will stubbornly insist it’s his, and which will defer to the other’s assertion? This definition is very narrow, and the concept of dominance is really only relevant when there is competition over a resource.

    But it's not just any resource. What if one dog doesn’t really care who gets the bone? Maybe he’d fight for a hunk of chicken, but doesn’t care enough about the bone to go head-to-head for it. Dominance really depends on the resource in question. Is it a preferred resource? If not, then it's not dominance.

    That other word- limited- is also important. If there is only one bone, we’ve got a problem, but if there are two dogs and twenty bones? Well, both dogs are likely going to get a bone. The resources aren't limited enough to create competition, and again, there’s no need to assert dominance.

    If you’re getting the feeling that dominance is very context specific, you’re right, but it gets even more specific because dominance is determined on a case-by-case basis. Unlike in birds, dominance hierarchies in most mammals are not linear. There is no “pecking order.” Just as I can get my way with my husband only to have to defer to my boss, Maisy might be willing to take on Fido to get the bone, and then submit to Rover. In other words: the term dominance describes a relationship between two individuals, not personality.

    So, do wild canids have dominance hierarchies? It depends on the canid, of course. Patricia told us that foxes have dominance relationships dependent on the resource base- in months where there are plenty of small critters, the need for dominance is much smaller than in leaner times. Coyotes tend to be “faculatively social,” with only some signs of dominance and submission. And wolves? Well...

    Much has been written about dominance in wolves, to the point that the notion of an “alpha wolf” long ago entered the popular lexicon. But many of the studies of dominance in wolves were based on captive situations. L. David Mech, the man who did some of the most well-known studies, went on to study wild wolves and found that they tend to live in family systems, not packs of unrelated wolves. To become the leader, the alpha wolf, requires reproduction more than dominance. The differences are profound; a family member can leave if there is conflict, a captive wolf cannot. As a result, Mech has now gone on record as saying that the term “alpha” really only applies to captive situations which require extreme signaling and displays in order to maintain harmony in a very unnatural situation.

    We’ve already talked about how wolves and dogs are very different, both physically and behaviorally. So does this mean that we should drop the concepts of dominance and submission for dogs entirely? Both Bradshaw and Coppinger suggest that we do. Bradshaw even says that dogs don’t have the cognitive ability for status. Instead, he talks about “resource holding potential,” which seems like a nice way to discuss “the d-word” without all the baggage that comes along.

    Patricia shared that she believes there is some sort of dominance/submission relationship between dogs. After all, when there’s two dogs, someone has to get the bone. She has also seen puppies who seem very interested in controlling resources at an early age- so much so that she thinks there is probably a genetic component to this tendency.

    She’s not entirely sure what to call the tendency though. Do you call it “controlling resources”? “Status seeking”? “Dominant”? No matter the words chosen, though, one thing is clear: the concept as a whole is just not useful in living with dogs. Our dogs are very rarely in competition for resources with us, and failing to respond to our commands has nothing to do with who could win the bone- it has to do with training.

    Nor is dominance related to aggression, at least not in the sense that aggressive dogs must therefore be dominant. Aggression can be a way to win the bone, but so can groveling. There’s a pretty big difference in the tactics of Gaddafi and those of Ghandi, and yet both could get priority access to desired resources.

    I’m very thankful my coworkers have never asked me if Maisy is a “dominant dog.” I honestly don’t know how to answer the question. It just doesn’t come up in our relationship. Part of this is probably because I view her as a teammate or partner; we work together to achieve our goals. She has the freedom to request things she wants, and I am free to say no... or more likely, to spoil her rotten. It doesn’t seem to matter, really. If she is “dominating” me, then it is with my permission… and enjoyment.

    If You Want to Know More
    Dog Sense, by John Bradshaw
    Dogs, by Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger
    L. David Mech's website- complete with links to articles and videos

    Patricia's Own Blog Posts on the Subject:
    The Concept Formerly Deseribed as Dominance
    Dogs and Dominance: What's a Person to Do?
    Dog Training and the D Word
    Dominance Mythologies (Patricia's summary of a presentation by Suzanne Hetts)